Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (AKA: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) (1919)

Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (AKA: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) – 1919

Director – Robert Wiene

Starring – Werner Krauss, Conrad Viedt, and Frederich Feher

We’ve all been through the situation in which a movie that we missed gets watched by everyone else.  Everyone else loves the film and proceeds to tell us about it and how good it is.  It’s at this point that we go to see said film, and lo and behold, it’s disappointing.  For one reason or another it doesn’t stack up or meet our expectations.  I think we can all agree that this sucks.

There is a similar scenario that I’ve encountered a few times, where the extremely popular film gets talked up to such a degree that it starts getting boring again.  We get sick of hearing about it, it might come from a certain time frame that doesn’t necessarily interest us, doesn’t have sound, or whatever.  Long story short, we are disappointed going INTO the film.  Despite the fact that the glowing reviews haven’t changed, they’ve been negated by our own shitty attitude.  Going into a movie this way, makes it seem pretty good, or if you’re lucky like I was with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it ends up being pretty great.

Few movies have had as much of a lasting impact, been as visually striking, impacting and influential as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  The tone is set up from the start, and it continues to bleed menace and unease for the rest of its compact 80 minute run time.  The premise, the makeup and most of all the set pieces serve to keep the tone of the film from faltering or the pace from slowing down, and all of these elements work together to enhance something that could have easily been over-rated.

The story is one that is familiar to modern movie audiences, yet it is not one that is expected.  I have to be careful when explaining it to not give too much away, but suffice to say, a strange character comes to town, Dr. Caligari, a somnambulist, with large claims of hypnotism, and mystery (now I’m still a little unclear whether the term somnambulist refers to Dr. Caligari himself or to his perpetually sleeping minion Cesare).  That very night a horrible murder occurs, and by chance the victim happens to be someone who had a run in with Dr. Caligari earlier on in the story.  The show goes on and the murders continue, until someone makes the connection, and starts to probe a little further into the past of this Caligari character.

In the film’s historical time frame, acting was a loose term at best that was really more a study of posing and moving ones eyes, but it is put to good use here as each actor manages to convey a fair amount of terror and suspicion all through their looks.  The most successful of these performances is turned in by Werner Krauss, as the good doctor himself.  A fair amount of his success is due to his makeup and to the set pieces, both of which accentuate the unsettling nature of his character’s devious nature.  Caligari slinks around all sneers and grimaces, perpetuating the fear and discomfort of the audience, all without the convenience of dialogue.  Similarly effective is the gaunt haunted character Cesare, Caligari’s minion, though he is really more of a tool of menace that the doctor wields than a character in his own right.

The one drawback I can point to as something that took me out of the story, was the speed at which the subtitles delivered the necessary information.  They operated at a snail’s pace, and stayed up on-screen way too long.  I suppose that can be chalked up to the fact that at the time it was made, film was a newer art form, and as such was subject to the learning curve just like everything else.  Though it explains things, being able to read the cue card 5-8 times through before they changed doesn’t make it any less distracting during what is otherwise a rather tense narrative.

All in all, I would definitely champion this film to be one of the 1001 films one should make a point of seeing before they die.  It belongs on this list as an example of history, technical innovation (the set pieces, taking on the physical characteristics of the characters is pretty astounding), not to mention the recognition deserved based on its quality as a piece of art.  Dr. Caligari is definitely a pre-cursor to a lot of horror and suspense films, so if that genre interests you, you should definitely take a look.

“I’m going to hypnotize your ass…in German!”  –  Ashley

Advertisements

West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story – 1961

Director(s) – Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

Starring – Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, and George Chakiris

So if you’ve read this blog before, you may know just how surprised I was upon seeing Singin’ in the Rain. I mean it was a fantastically really well done movie, with an entertaining story, characters with a very tangible chemistry and, the surprising part, it was a musical! I know. I know. I thought that fact alone would guarantee it to be terrible too, but it didn’t.

Well based on the strength of that film, I approached this “classic” with a bit more spring in my step. I mean, this could actually be pretty fun. The story of Romeo and Juliet mixed with the raw energy and exuberance of Singin’ in the Rain. That sounds like a no lose situation…right? Enter the dance fighting. Exit all hope of this being good.

I’ll repeat that…a movie featuring a tragic love story, gang warfare, and dance fighting.  Not dance fighting like one might see in a movie like “Step Up” or “You Got Served”  where the dancing is the weapon.  No, these guys are fighting with knives, pipes, and broken bottles, they just dance around while they do it.  Removing all the power, intensity, and plausibility of fighting from the situation.

For those who’ve never heard of Romeo and Juliet, or its retarded cousin, West Side Story, here’s the scoop. There are two rival gangs who hate each other because they are trying to occupy the same territory, and because of the folly of youth, but mostly because they are so different that they are essentially the same.  Okay, so we’ve got tension.

Because of their unwillingness to look beyond these minor differences, they are completely unwilling to tolerate co-habitation.  Problems arise when a member of each group falls in love with the other.  Each gang is outraged and willing to go to great lengths to stop the fledgling romance.  There’s the story defining conflict!  This mixture of volatile elements is a recipe for disas…oh wait, no.  Dance-fighting destroys all conflict and tension just by nature of being fucking dance-fighting.  Story ruined.

So all bitterness aside, West Side Story took a rather common hackneyed concept and decided to do absolutely nothing new with it.  Adding mediocre songs to the mix, and half-heartedly choreographing some dancing doesn’t re-invigorate a story that everyone knows, especially when the “new” additions all seem tacked on and disingenuous.

So, you ask, does this spoil my impression of musicals again? Am I back to being a non-believer? Not yet, although it was touch and go there for a while. I can rationally understand that there are duds in every genre, no matter if they’re science fiction (The Core anyone), mystery (anything M. Night Shyamalan did post Sixth Sense), or even, gasp, action (Transformers, GI Joe, etc..).  Unlike what I previously thought, there will be good musicals, but there will be terrible ones too (so really I was half right).

As for the acting, there really seems to be no point in going into it for this film, I wasn’t impressed by any of it.  In general though, one of the actors in particular will manage to redeem himself in my eyes.  Russ Tamblyn, will go on to feature heavily in one of the best television series of all times, Twin Peaks, and will also play a host of memorable small roles in such works as, Drive, The Haunting, Quantum Leap, and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.

So is this film worth seeing?  In my opinion, no.  Go see Romeo and Juliet instead (or better yet, go read it too), and save yourself the annoyance. Every once in a while this list of 1001 movies has some black holes of crap tossed in just because.  This is one of them.

“Giving musicals a bad name” – Ashley

The Hustler (1961)

The Hustler – 1961

Director – Robert Rossen

Starring – Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott

Heading into this movie, I realize now, I had a lot of pre-conceptions.  Not so much about the quality of the film, whether it would be good or bad, but more about the content of the film.  Thanks to countless posters in the various seedy billiards rooms that I frequent, I just assumed that there would be more pool than there was.  Also, I apparently wrongly assumed just who the hustler mentioned in the title of the film was.

For those, like me apparently, who aren’t too familiar with the story, The Hustler follows the driven ambition of “Fast” Eddie Felson.  Felson, played famously by Paul Newman is a small time hustler looking to beat the best in the billiards game, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), and claim the crown of the best pool player around.  Fats along with his shifty gambling buddy played by George C. Scott, seeing Felson’s reckless ambition for what it is, work to exploit, and take advantage of him.

Along the way, Fast Eddie meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a woman so defeated by life, that she takes his interest as a sort of cruel taunt.  In reality, he feels as though he can fully be himself around her, without apology for his shortcomings.  The attention re-awakens her hope for a normal life.  Life for the couple starts to feel more and more normal, until that is, the real hustler, George C. Scott’s Bert, convinces Fast Eddie to go out on the road, running hustles and making money for him.  This drives a wedge in their relationship and threatens to ruin everything they’ve built.

As far as the movies that feature the character Fast Eddie Felson, I prefer Martin Scorsese’s take with The Color of Money, although the Hustler is certainly a good, if not great movie.  It may be due to my mood going into watching it, but I was really hoping for more action than drama, more suspense than revelation.

I wanted the cocky Felson to be a bit tougher, a little less pathetic throughout the film.  He is far more of a victim than he is a hustler.  It is certainly viable to create a story that ends unhappily, this film just made me sad.  For a guy who is clearly looking for acceptance, he sure gives away the acceptance he gets from Sarah without a thought about her or even himself.  The only thing that seems to matter to him is being the best in the eyes of those who are laughing at him and using him for their own gain.  As a result I was left more than a little wanting, and felt rather downcast after finishing it.  Despite their best efforts to craft a noir-ish character and setting, the movie seemed to be missing something.  Even the cinematography and music seemed somewhat forgettable to me.

I don’t mean to treat this movie harshly, clearly it had an impact on me, just not the one I was looking for going into it.  The image I have of the character is what I was left with from The Color of Money, a man who despite defeat, doesn’t give up.  Despite, humiliation, has a certain self-awareness, and despite conventional relationships, has carved out a little place for himself in the world.

Truth be told, I’ve had a certain blossoming of respect for this film just in writing down my feelings about it, although I think it says more for Martin Scorsese re-visit of the characters than it does for anything else.

I would say that despite the fact that I liked it, I definitely didn’t like it enough to include it on the list of 1001 movies.  There was an element missing either in the movie or what I wanted from it i’m not sure, but it’s missing just the same.  Either way, it doesn’t matter, it didn’t quite work for me.

“They play pool and stuff” – Ashley

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter – 1955

Director – Charles Laughton

Starring – Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Peter Graves, Lillian Gish, and Billy Chapin

There are not many other films that carry the respect and weight of expectation to the extent that The Night of the Hunter does.  In most cases this works as a benefit for most other films.  This way the film doesn’t have the possibility of letting you down if it fails to live up to those lofty expectations.  Despite, or perhaps because of this, The Night of the Hunter succeeds where a slightly lesser film, with lesser actors, might fail.

First and foremost, the film is remembered for the iconic performance of Robert Mitchum as the Reverend Harry Powell, a performance that oozes with anger and menace.  Mitchum plays Powell to the woman-hating, selfish, and sadistic nines, enjoying every minute of his own performance (which usually doesn’t work, but here, I’m having just as much fun as he is).  Powell roams the country-side of a beleaguered depression era America killing widows and stealing their money.  Even though he claims to be instructed to do it by God, I’m of the opinion his religious bent is simply his sheep’s clothing and the killing is actually his wolf’s nature.

The plot kicks in when Powell learns of hidden bank-robbery loot stolen by a soon to be executed inmate.  Seeing this as a sign from God to continue his “work”, he devises a plan to pay a visit to the inmate’s family and claim it, no matter the cost.

Powell descends upon the Harper family figuratively, and (visually) literally like a nightmare, wooing the widow, and charming the young daughter.  The inmate’s young boy, John Harper, played adequately by Billy Chapin, is left to stand up to this impending threat by himself with no help from anyone.

Now, this is a basic enough set-up, and if it were to continue to play out this way, it would have turned out to be a basic enough movie.  Good, but not great.  What makes this film truly shine is the fantastic American Gothic visuals provided by the cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, who also worked on Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons”, which, if you’ve read my review of that film, also had stunning visuals.

Each frame in the film could be viewed on its own and considered a piece of art strong enough to contend with any other frame.  The use of silhouettes in this film provides a menacing atmosphere that acting just wouldn’t be able to portray.  Combined with the charismatic performance of Mitchum, the cinematography goes great lengths to illustrate the surreal horror the characters are living.  Set pieces change dramatically from day to night, from home to prison.  Sanctuary to purgatory.  One of the most impacting images in the film, a scene that takes place underwater, could have been accomplished completely through suggestion, and very well could have removed the suspense that the film had worked so hard to build up by that point, but instead served to heighten the impending danger and further tilt our perception about what Powell was capable of.

Another scene that stood out visually (there were MANY), was a scene where the children are hiding in the cellar.  We break through the actual limits of what we could have seen by pushing past the fourth wall.  Powell, standing at the top of the cellar stairs, blocks the escape of the children in the cellar.  The children are all the way down at the other end of the screen from Mitchum, further illustrating the conflict between the characters, and what obstacles there are yet to overcome.

Charles Laughton, the actor famous for his roles in films like Spartacus, Captain Kidd, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, takes the directing reins in this film.  So disappointed by the reaction to the film after it’s release, Laughton afterwards vowed to never direct again.  It’s unfortunate that this turned out to be the case, because despite a few mediocre performances from the children, The Night of the Hunter was a very well constructed piece of art, worthy of its place on this list of 1001 greatest films of all time, and certainly the product of someone with vision and voice.

“Okay we get it, he’s a bad guy. Put down the fucking horns!” (on the musical score). – Ashley

The Sting (1973)

The Sting – 1973

Director – George Roy Hill

Starring – Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Robert Shaw

Some movies are just the right combination of pluck and chemistry.  They don’t have the strongest story, nor do they have the most gripping action, or the most beautiful girl, but they leave you with a pleasant feeling once the film is over.  Thanks to the long lasting effects of this pervasive pleasantness, films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Hot Shots, and The Neverending Story still resonate with me, while still other films (much like the Wonka re-make) fail.  They possess some element that isn’t quantifiable or necessarily repeatable.  The stars aligned and the seas parted and low and behold the film is good.  The Sting sits firmly in this demographic, not at all bad, but somehow better than the sum of its parts.

Redford and Newman re-team in this buddy film set in the lawless Chicago of the 30’s.  Newman oozes confidence and cool as the con-man Henry Gondorf, who takes novice Johnny Hooker, Redford, under his wing in order to pull off the fleece of the lifetime against serious as cancer mob boss, Doyle Lonnegan (Shaw).  There are a number of twists and turns, red-herrings and surprises on the con-men’s road to revenge, yet the whole tone of the film stays light and fun.  Despite some marvelously dower moments by Robert Shaw’s Lonnegan, the stake never really seem that high, although it is still a pleasure to watch all of the three main actors do their thing.

Cinematographically, the film rides a thin line between stylized and cartoon, (a line that fellow 70’s heart-throb Warren Beatty went way, WAY past in Dick Tracy) and at times seems a little campy.  Still the look of the film sets a certain tone that works for the camaraderie of Hooker and Gondorf.  It looks exactly like the Disney resort “The Boardwalk” made me feel, nostalgic about a time I never thought I cared about.

Of all the creative elements, the least effective in terms of me continuing to enjoy the movie, was the musical score.  Despite the fact that it compliments the set design and look of the film, every time strains of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” began, I was immediately drawn out of the story.  Luckily, even though the music is a little goofy, it isn’t used to a degree where I couldn’t pay attention, I just gritted my teeth and eventually it would end.

By and large, I enjoyed this film quite a bit.  I saw the twists and turns for what they were long before they were revealed, but I blame my knowledge of modern movie conventions for that.  While it might not be the best con-man movie I’ve ever seen (that dubious honor goes to the super fantastic Paper Moon), I think it’s earned it’s spot on this list, even if that spot is towards the end.

“Learn to run your own con-game.” – Ashley

All the President’s Men (1976)

All the President’s Men – 1976

Director – Alan J. Pakula

Starring – Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Hal Holbrook and Jason Robards

As far as politically charged thrillers go, the 70’s was full of them. Covering topics as influential and wide-ranging as Kennedy’s assassination, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and of course corruption in government. While inspired by real events, the majority of these stories seem to be firmly rooted in the realm of fiction, however the dramatized re-telling of the Watergate scandal investigation is a rather shocking view into the reality of the political climate in the era of Richard Nixon…and it is all the more fantastic because of it.

Director, Alan Pakula had a string of successful thrillers in the 70’s in addition to All the President’s Men, including Klute, and the Parallax View starring Donald Sutherland and Warren Beatty respectively.  The famous journalists at the heart of this story, Woodward and Bernstein, are played fantastically by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively. Redford, who was initially just a producer on the film, chose Dustin Hoffman to balance the film’s star power when it became clear that he would be acting in it. As a result, the plot isn’t so much bogged down by the star power, but propelled by it. Hoffman, and especially Redford are at the top of their games. It is especially apparent with Redford, who as far as I can tell, used to be quite a charismatic and attractive fellow.

Aside from it’s two headline stars, the film is populated with a plethora of talented character actors as well.  Jason Robards plays the crochety editor of the Washington Post, Hal Holbrook plays “Deep Throat” the secret informant who led Woodward and Bernstein in the right direction, and we are even treated to a young Meridith Baxter, best known as being Alex P. Keaton’s mom in Family Ties, in a minor but memorable role.  Though these actors and actresses weren’t the box office draws that the two leading actors were, their parts are no less captivating and enthralling to watch (Robards especially).

For those not up to date on their political history, the film begins with a break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. While briefly hot news, the story quickly got bogged down in mis-information, and cover-ups. Most news organizations dropped the story in favor of concentrating on the nomination of the Republican and Democratic candidates. Woodward and Bernstein, both reporters for the Washington Post, never let the story drop. Both continued to chase leads, dig up information, and famously, follow the money, despite the risk to their careers. The result was one of the most wide-ranging political conspiracies of our times, which in good part, led to the disenfranchisement of the American people and the resignation of an American president.

As with many thrillers in the 70’s, All the President’s Men relies heavily on pacing to build tension and establish the stakes of the story, which it manages to do fantastically well.  Many times throughout the film, there are shots that last multiple minutes, slowly zooming in, or remaining static as the actors move around the screen.  This allows the gravity in the story to seep into the audience.  Often times the tension is broken through the mixture of elements, such as through sound, juxtaposition in the composition of a the next shot or scene, or through the editing.  During a long zooming shot of characters interacting, a phone may suddenly ring, a car horn may sound, or a typewriter may suddenly start clacking away. 

The use of metaphor in the film is a powerful one that fits perfectly with the message of the film, words are weapons, and they can be just as powerful in the right hands as they can be in the wrong ones.  This ideal is driven home, most notably, in the end scene in which a television is playing actual footage of a twenty-one gun salute for Nixon’s re-nomination while in the back ground there is a layer of busy typewriter sound.  Woodward and Bernstein are hard at work even while it seems that the wrong side has won.

This film bears a similarity to another film that I’ve reviewed already, Costa-Gavras’ mind-blowing, Z.  Both deal with the triumph of right over wrong, and honesty over corruption, and both are masterful in every sense of the word.  All the President’s Men was an absolute treat to watch, and will more than likely find its way into my DVD collection (if not my Blu-Ray collection).  Highly, highly recommended!

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons

Director – Orson Welles

Starring – Joseph Cotton, Delores Costello, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt

Often compared as a bastard sibling to the widely praised Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is the second of Orson Welles’ two picture deal with RKO Pictures.  While he was away filming another feature in Brazil, Ambersons was taken away from Welles by the studio who felt the picture was too slow and somber.  RKO cut roughly 50 minutes of footage from the end, and tacked on a happy ending to appease test audiences who, since it was released after the attack at Pearl Harbor wanted something a bit more cheerful, and with laughs.

Ambersons tells the story of a spoiled little rich kid, George Amberson Minaver, played to cruel, selfish perfection by Tim Holt.  George (apparently based on the somewhat spoiled Orson Welles) is so caught up in himself, and his worries, that he doesn’t allow anyone else in his family the opportunity of their own happiness.  Seeing the affection between his mother, Isabel, and Joseph Cotton’s character Eugene Morgan, as a threat, he firmly plants himself in between the pair willing to go to great lengths to keep them apart.  The families reliance on their seemingly endless wealth threatens to teach them some hard life lessons.  From this brief synopsis, you can see where the story is going, but rest assured you won’t see the abbreviated ending coming.

Despite the new happy ending, The Magnificent Ambersons, as it exists today is incomplete.  The editor, Robert Wise, a director in his own right (The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) was put in charge of cutting the film to its current length.  While salvaging as much as he could of the story, the film still seems to end abruptly, destroying the our investment in the characters as well as the weight and importance of the story.  The cut footage was rumored to have been destroyed to prevent Welles from protesting and producing another cut, all though officially it was to clear space in the studio’s vaults.

Since we will never fully know what this film could have been, it is unfair to say it is as good as Citizen Kane, nor is it fair to put it on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, especially since it isn’t commercially available on DVD in the United States (I watched a decent quality AVI file that I happened upon).  That being said, what is present in the version that I saw, was a prime example of why Orson Welles was (and still is if you ask me) such a revered filmmaker.  The ensemble acting is the quality you might expect of the Mercury players, everyone does a great job, not only of playing their parts, but also of supporting their fellow actors in their roles.

A class could be taught on the cinematography of this film alone.  Stanley Cortez replaces Gregg Toland as Welles’ cinematographer of choice, but none of the elegance inherent in Citizen Kane was lost.  Unlike a lot of films from this era, Welles isn’t afraid of using shadow to dramatic and atmospheric effect.  Character’s, especially female characters, in most american films seem to always find that same pocket of light that illuminates them in just such a way.  In Ambersons, not only is there plenty of darkness, but it is nearly a character all its own.  One that each other character interacts with, and plays against (both physically with the shadows in a scene, and metaphorically with their own motivations and intentions).

Another interesting element deserving of mention is the mammoth estate in which the Amberson’s dwell.  The sense of foreboding and expectation carried by the physical structure that houses this indomitable family affects the story as much as any other element in the story.  The cavernous stairway is host to as many romantic kisses as it is to malicious eavesdropping and tense stand-offs.

Finally it is important to point out the resonance this film has had with one of my favorite films of all time, The Royal Tenenbaums.  Similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, Tenenbaums deals with the perceived mythology of a family of spectacular characters, and juxtaposing that ideal against the reality of the dysfunction that is inherent in family.  Similarities range from the small (the titles are similarly grand) to the grand (the main conflict in both films comes about when love and relationships are threatened by jealousy and depression).  Wes Anderson, to his credit, has managed to finish what Orson Welles was never able to.  With The Royal Tenenbaums he manages to bring closure to the wonderful story that has had a false happy ending on it for nearly 60 years.

Is The Magnificent Ambersons great?  No, not as a whole, but what it’s made of, what it was going to be, and what it has inspired, is far more than great!  It’s Magnificent!